Kino and his wife Juana live in a small brush hut with their young baby Coyotito. At the start of “The Pearl” John Steinbeck shows Kino and his family living a peaceful life filled with the sound of the whispering surf, and the beautiful “Song of the Family,” the song of safety and warmth.
In the midst of this pleasant scene Steinbeck introduces the first evil which will touch Kino and his family: a scorpion which threatens the baby Coyotito. It crawls down the rope from which Coyotito’s cradle is suspended. Kino and Juana try to catch it before it reaches their baby but Coyotito reaches up and knocks it off onto himself. Kino snatches up the scorpion and smashes into the earth, but it is too late, for Coyotito wails in anguish. The poison of the scorpion that stung him would make a full grown man very sick. For the baby, though, the poison may be deadly.
Kino and Juana decide to take Coyotito to the local village doctor. Steinbeck first paints a picture of the doctor at ease inside his gated estate, eating sweets and dreaming of his former opulent lifestyle in France. When a servant disturbs the doctor with news of Kino’s plea for help the rich man’s first response is rage. “I am a doctor, not a veterinary,” the doctor says, implying that Kino and his baby are animals because they are not rich like he is. The doctor says that he will not treat Coyotito unless Kino can pay him. When the servant returns to ask Kino if he has any money to pay for treatment Kino presents all of his savings: eight small, warped seed pearls of very little value.
The doctor’s servant soon returns to Kino and gives him back the eight small pearls. “The doctor has gone out. He was called to a serious case,” the servant lies and closes the gate in Kino’s face. Kino stands there for a moment and then strikes the gate with his fist. Standing before the door that has been so cruelly closed on him Kino looks down at his split, bloody knuckles.
It is at this point that John Steinbeck first shows the desire for money at work in Kino and Juana. They treat Coyotito with a poultice made of seaweed, but unsure of how effective it will be they decide to go out to the pearl beds to find a pearl better than the ones they have saved up. Steinbeck shows Juana’s thinking process:
“She had not prayed directly for the recovery of the baby—she had prayed that they might find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby.”
It is at this point in “The Pearl” that Kino and Juana begin thinking of riches, in this case a pearl, as the solution to their problems.
Kino dives down into the oyster bed and begins filling his basket with pearls. As chance has it he glimpses a very large oyster hidden beneath an overhang. Before the shell closes, Kino sees the gleam of what may be a pearl inside. Kino immediately returns to the surface with the great oyster.
Although Kino is excited about what he saw he does not rush things. Instead he takes the time to pull up his diving rock and his basket of oysters. At this critical moment in the story Steinbeck introduces a very important idea:
“It is not good to want a thing too much. It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough, and you must be very tactful with God or the gods.”
In line with this principal Kino opens one of the oysters from the basket first. When he has inspected it and found it to contain nothing he throws the oyster overboard and then picks up the large oyster, pretending to notice it for the first time. Kino cuts open the oyster’s shell and pulls back the flesh. Inside the oyster is a huge pearl, as large as a seagulls egg. Steinbeck describes Kino and Juana’s response on seeing it for the first time:
“Juana caught her breath and moaned a little. And to Kino the secret melody of the maybe pearl broke clear and beautiful, rich and warm and lovely, glowing and gloating and triumphant. In the surface of the pearl he could see dream forms. He picked the pearl from the dying flesh and held it in his palm, and he turned it over and saw that its curve was perfect. Juana came near to stare at it in his hand, and it was the hand he had smashed against the doctor’s gate, and the torn flesh of the knuckles was turned grayish white by the sea water.”
At first Steinbeck shows the pearl as a wonderful thing. It is the key that will allow Kino and Juana to achieve all of their dreams, and it will forever raise them above the embarrassing state of poverty that limited them in the past. Now that Kino has the pearl he can dare to let himself dream of things that were before impossible. Kino’s brother Juan asks “What will you do now that you have become a rich man?” Kino thinks carefully. “We will be married—in the church.” Kino can see Juana and himself standing before all the others in the church. “We will have new clothes,” Kino says. From there is is but a small leap to further extravagance: “A rifle. Perhaps a rifle.” The rifle breaks down all barriers in Kino’s mind. If he can have a rifle then he can have anything he wants, all thanks to the pearl.
“My son will go to school. My son will read and open books, and my son will write and will know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know—he will know and through him we will know. This is what the pearl will do.”
Kino’s grand plans are intrinsically tied to the benefit that the pearl can bring to him. However, even as he dreams of the riches of the pearl, others in his village also desire a share of Kino’s wealth. Steinbeck shows a broad view of how the pearl affects everyone in the village, from the clergy who think to themselves about how money could help them repair the church, to shopkeepers who make sure that their clothes are in good order, to the evil doctor who dreams of returning to France and eating in a fancy restaurant. Even the beggars “giggle with pleasure, for they [know] that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky.”
Now that the pearl is in Kino’s hands “all manner of people” become interested in him. One of the first people to visit him is the village priest. With the pearl in his hand Kino finds that he no longer trusts the priest. He looks forward to the time when his son Coyotito will be grown up, when he will have learned to read and write. Then Coyotito can read the holy books and know what things are true and what things are not. The priest encourages Kino to remember God and give thanks for his good fortune.
On the heels of the priest comes the doctor. Now that Kino has money the doctor is very willing to treat baby Coyotito. By now the danger from the scorpion poison has already passed, but the doctor takes advantage of Kino and Juana’s ignorance to tell them that the baby is in mortal danger. The doctor gives Coyotito a “medicine,” really poison, and tells them that the “medicine” will help hold off the ill effects of the scorpion. However, he warns them that the “scorpion poison” may strike again. Sure enough, within an hour Coyotito becomes very sick, but it is not from the scorpion, but rather the “medicine” that the doctor gave to him. Kino and Juana are suspicious of the doctor’s actions but they can not tell for sure that he is not telling the truth.
That night Kino starts to become afraid that someone will steal the pearl from him. He digs it up from the place where he had hidden it and buries it under his sleeping mat. Juana watches him and asks “Who do you fear?” Kino answers “Everyone.”
It is at this point that the pearl first becomes a thing of evil. During the night a thief enters the hut to try to steal the pearl. In the dark Kino stabs wildly and injures the thief. The thief escapes after dealing Kino a massive blow to the head. As Juana dresses his wound she for the first time encourages Kino to get rid of the pearl. “This thing is evil. This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.”
Kino can not part with pearl though. For him it is the family’s only chance. The next morning Kino and his wife dress in their best clothing and go to the pearl buyers to sell the great pearl. Most of the villagers turn out for the event. They want to see the “Pearl of the World” sold, and they want to see how much Kino gets for it. Little do Kino and the other villagers realize, but all the pearl buyers in the village have been cheating the pearl divers for years. They agree in advance to buy pearls for much below their true value. When Kino shows his pearl to the appraiser the man tells him that is like fools gold, nothing but a curiosity. He offers Kino a thousand pesos.
In anger Kino refuses the offer, stating that the pearl is worth fifty thousand pesos. He announces that he will take the pearl to the capital, where he can get a fair price for it. In defying the pearl dealers in this way Kino threatens the entire structure of life in his village. The pearl makes him think great thoughts and makes him wish to break free from the oppression of the rich people who have abused the Indians for so many years.
Again Kino is attacked in the night by a thief who wishes to steal the pearl. Kino manages to repel the attacker but he receives a scalp wound that leaves him only half conscious. Again Juana begs Kino to throw away the pearl before it destroys them. Again Kino refuses.
In the morning Juana secretly takes the pearl out of hiding and goes down to the beach to throw it back into the sea from which it came. Kino follows Juana and stops her before she can throw the pearl away. In a mad rage Kino strikes Juana across the face and kicks her in the side when she falls to the ground.
His rage replaced with disgust Kino walks away, but before he is even out of sight a group of men ambush him to steal the pearl. Kino kills one of them with his knife, but the pearl is knocked out of his hands onto the sand. The men do not see it and they think that Kino does not have the pearl with him. They strike him down and leave him for dead.
Juana comes to Kino’s rescue. She picks up the pearl and tends to Kino. When his senses return Kino’s first thought is of the pearl. “They have taken the pearl. I have lost it. Now it is over.” The pearl has become Kino’s master, his entire purpose in life. Juana gives him the pearl. “Here is your pearl. Can you understand. You have killed a man. We must go away.”
Kino and Juana have no option now but to flee. When Kino inspects his boat though he finds that a huge hole has been knocked in the bottom. The boat was a family relic passed down through by his grandfather, then his father. To Kino the breaking of the boat is an evil thing that fills him with rage.
Just as soon as Kino leaves the beach he finds that someone has set fire to his brush hut. The hut burns to the ground, destroying almost everything Kino and Juana own. They have no choice now but to set off toward the city to sell the pearl. Before Kino goes his brother implores him to get rid of the evil pearl. Kino responds “This pearl has become my soul. If I give it up I shall lose my soul.”
Kino and Juana escape into the wilderness with a few supplies and their infant son. They hide in the bush, and for the first time Kino has time to reflect on what has happened to him because of the pearl.
“When we sell it at last, I will have a rifle,” he said, and he looked into the shining surface for his rifle, but he saw only a huddled dark body on the ground with shining blood dripping from its throat. And he said quickly, “We will be married in a great church.” And in the pearl he saw Juana with her beaten face crawling home through the night. “Our son must learn to read,” he said frantically. And there in the pearl Coyotito’s face, thick and feverish from the medicine.
Kino finally begins to see the evil of the pearl he has found, but he still can not give up the dreams that he has attached to it. Kino and Juana’s situation becomes desperate when they discover that trackers are following them through the wilderness to steal the pearl from them. Kino and Juana flee in fear, but they know that they can not run forever. At nighttime Kino decides to make a stand against the trackers. He has Juana and Coyotito hide inside a cave. Kino himself stays to watch for the coming of the trackers.
The trackers make camp near a small pool of water below Juana and Coyotito’s cave. Kino has just one way to stop them and save himself, his wife, and his son. He determines to steal the rifle and kill the men in their sleep.
Late at night, Kino descends on the trackers’ camp naked, for fear that his light clothing will reveal him. Just as Kino is about to attack the trackers his son Coyotito begins crying. The men instantly become alert. “Coyote maybe,” one of them says. “If it’s a coyote, this will stop it.” One of them raises his rifle and fires into the darkness.
Kino jumps out of hiding and kills the man instantly with his knife. He deliberately murders the other two men, shooting one of them down with the rifle, but it is too late. From the cave he hears the keening cry of his wife. Even through the darkness the tracker’s deadly shot hit Coyotito and killed him.
Kino and Juana return to the village with the bloody bundle that was once their son. They march through the village as everyone watches from behind gates and through windows. They walk past their burned hut and broken canoe to the sea edge.
Kino’s hand shakes as he pulls out the pearl. Now he sees it as a “malignant growth,” a thing of unbelievable evil that has destroyed his family and life. Kino holds the pearl out to Juana to throw away but Juana shakes her head. “No, you.” Kino pulls back his arm and flings the pearl far out over the waves.
Against Juana’s better judgment Kino’s desires have wrecked their family, but Juana does not seem to hold Kino responsible. She recognizes that what Kino did was what any man would have had to do. As Steinbeck puts it Juana sees Kino as “half insane, half god,” willing to “drive his strength against a mountain, and plunge his strength against the sea.” By making Kino throw the pearl away himself she gives him a chance to recover some of his manhood and his ruined honor. But Kino and Juana can never be happy with their life again. Before the pearl they were satisfied with their son and their simply living. Now that the pearl has given Kino and Juana a taste for riches, and provoked them to dream of things greater they will never be able to look at their lives without thinking of how things could have been.
At first glance Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” is a potent criticism of materialism and the American dream to become rich and successful. Steinbeck shows the evils that result from putting riches first in life. However, Steinbeck also weaves much deeper themes into “The Pearl.” One major aspect of “The Pearl” is the continual contrast between Kino and Juana. Juana possesses more common sense and foresight to see right from the start that the pearl is something that will hurt the family more than help. Kino, though, becomes obsessed with protecting the pearl for the benefit of the family. He dreams of a grand future for Coyotito, not recognizing that the pearl is more of a danger for his family than a help. His fanaticism becomes fully developed when he abuses his wife for trying to get rid of the pearl. In this way Steinbeck explores the difference between male and female thinking and the psychological differences between Kino and Juana.
“The Pearl” is in part a spiritual journey. Each of the story elements have a flavor of either “good” or “evil.” The doctor and pearl buyers are evil. In contrast, Coyotito is a “savior” in that Kino wants him to get an education so that he can free the family and others from the oppressive rule of the rich. Throughout “The Pearl” Steinbeck also shows Juana praying, both to God and the gods, using both the Our Father, and the traditional magics. In a way “The Pearl” is a reflection of the Biblical parable found at Matthew 13:45,46. In this Bible passage a merchant finds a pearl of great value, and sells everything he has to own it. In this case, though, the pearl is a metaphor for God’s Kingdom, whereas in Steinbeck’s story the pearl is a thing of evil, a metaphor for greed and wealth in general.
Interestingly Steinbeck wrote “The Pearl” in response to a suggestion from friends in Mexico who encouraged him to write a screenplay for a film to be produced and filmed in Mexico. Throughout “The Pearl” readers can note ways in which Steinbeck specifically aimed the text toward cinematic effects. One of these is the point of view, which tends to be either close-up, or at medium or distant range. The scenes described are well suited for filming, both because of their typically sparse use of characters, and their powerful emotional and action content. In addition, Steinbeck uses music keys that would be expected in a movie, but are slightly hard to imagine in a written story. As Kino fears for the pearl Steinbeck mentions “The Song of Evil,” low and haunting. In contrast the warm “Song of the Family” percolates through Kino and Juana’s life. At first when Kino looks at the pearl he hears the “Song of the Pearl” as something more like “The Song of the Family” in that the pearl will help him to improve the family’s life. But later Kino begins to tie “The Song of Evil” with “The Song of the Pearl.” These songs are specifically mentioned to aid in the production of the screenplay for “The Pearl.” The Mexican film of “The Pearl” was released in the United States in 1947 and 1948, and at that point it became the first Mexican made film commercially distributed in the States.
“The Pearl” by John Steinbeck is a many-layered story that teaches a deep lesson about the pursuit of wealth while at the same time exploring the differences between the sexes and the real meaning of family life. Every reader should experience this classic piece of fiction.